Well-told creepy yarns

'Ghost Stories', a film directed by Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson; reviewed by Chris French.

Have you ever noticed how sceptical characters in horror movies usually come to a sticky end within the first half hour or so? They are usually portrayed as arrogant know-it-alls, scoffing at fears of the supernatural in others; and most viewers probably feel they fully deserve the grisly fate which is meted out to them as a consequence. They really should have heeded the many warnings they were given, shouldn’t they?

In Ghost Stories, the portrayal of psychologist Professor Phillip Goodman by Andy Nyman (who also co-wrote and co-directed with Jeremy Dyson) is somewhat less of a caricature than is often served up in such movies. It is rumoured that Goodman’s character is based loosely upon celebrity sceptic Professor Richard Wiseman and perhaps the similarity in surnames is a nod in that direction. Goodman is, however, a flawed character (unlike Richard Wiseman), but at least he lasts beyond the opening minutes of the film (don’t worry, that’s the closest I’ll get to a spoiler). The film itself is essentially a well-told creepy yarn in the format of the once-popular portmanteau movie.

To be more precise, it is four well-told creepy yarns. Goodman is challenged by a former celebrity sceptic – who has seen the error of his ways and is now a confirmed believer – to investigate the three ‘inexplicable’ cases that led him to realise that the supernatural is indeed real. The fourth story is the one that provides insight into Goodman’s own demons.

The film lovingly and effectively makes use of many of the standard tricks of horror movies to build up the tension and occasionally make viewers jump out of their seats. With a great cast, including Martin Freeman and Paul Whitehouse, it is not surprising that the characters are convincingly portrayed, but for me the standout performance came from relative newcomer Alex Lawther. His portrayal of the psychologically disturbed schoolboy Simon Rifkind raises creepiness to new heights. Anyone who, like me, had previously seen the successful play that this film is based upon will enjoy the subtle hints throughout the film pointing to the dark episode in Goodman’s past that still haunts him.

Unusually for a horror movie, this one ultimately leaves unanswered the question of whether or not the supernatural is real so the film may appeal to sceptics more than most of this genre. However, in my experience, most sceptics do not have a problem with the supernatural in fiction. After all, if it was good enough for Shakespeare and Dickens, it’s good enough for us – just as long as people remember that it’s all made up. None of it is real. Or is it?

- Reviewed by Professor Chris French, Goldsmiths, University of London

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